How to… select an archive to research in

How to… select an archive to research in

Please reference as: Liz Stanley (2016) ‘How to select an archive to research in’, and provide the paragraph number as appropriate when quoting.

1.  A discussion of a number of the things covered in this ‘How to… select an archive to research in’ will be found in the chapters I was responsible for writing (chapters 1 and 2) in The Archive Project: Archival Research in the Social Sciences. Niamh Moore, Andrea Salter, Liz Stanley, Maria Tamboukou. London: Routledge, August 2016.

A lot more information, including about all the other chapters, is provided on the book’s website, which will be found at

And the Routledge book website is

2.  In a sense, asking the question of ‘how to select an archive to work in’ is a bit of a non-starter, for the key factor in decisions about where to do any piece of research is the research problem – the topic or issue that the researcher wants to find out about – together with some research questions that can help to focus the investigation of this. It is usually not a matter of, ‘I want to work in the British Library, or the government archives in Delhi, or the Kimberley Africana Library’, but instead that ‘I’m interested in the UK suffragette movement, or want to know if Kallenbach’s letters to Gandhi throw light on his pacifism, or ‘I’m concerned with the impact of the early days diamond mining on relations between black and white people’.

3.  However, in the earlier stages of a research project it is important to cast the net wide and to trawl in the academic literatures for topics – and also archives – of potential interest. This immediately raises the question of, what is meant by ‘archive’ here, is this a collection of some kind or is it the organisational edifice and the building that holds many such collections? It’s helpful to be clear about this, for people can talk at cross purposes, with one of them meaning an organisational edifice, and another referring to collections.

4.  This is particularly important given much archival theorising. This tends to make large generalisations, including about the links between imperialism and ‘the archive’, but mainly using the term ‘archive’ as a metaphor that is attached to particularly famous or infamous organisational edifices such as the British Library or the equivalents in other countries that were once or still are imperial powers. In general, metaphors are less helpful in carrying out practical investigations than tried and trusted methodological strategies, however exciting they may appear to be as ideas.

5.  At an everyday research level, the seemingly simple matter of whether ‘archive’ is a location or a collection raises some complexities and also suggests some helpful ways of making operational decisions about ‘how to select an archive/a collection’. An example will help explain. Reading widely in journal articles and also research-based books (rather than textbooks) on the British missionary presence in southern Africa, the example in question, will show that many of the references in these are to collections held in the manuscripts and archives section of SOAS, part of the University of London (there are others in addition, but for present purposes these can be bracketed). Straight away, this provides the beginnings of a way to focus, for a bit more interrogation of these references will show which particular missionary collections are to be found in this archival location, for there are a number of them at SOAS. There are also missionary collections elsewhere, and so research that is on missionaries would need to take cognizance of these too and get an idea of which are relevant and which not.

6.  Most people would be unable, for reasons of cost and time, to go to a number of locations just on the off-chance of finding things that might be interesting and important. Most of the researchers interested in such things will come from many parts of the world, will not have large research grants to take them on extensive travels, and will not have the time to be entirely speculative in their activities. So how to decide where to go and what to look at?

7.  Having a clear idea of the topic or focus of interest, and preferably also some beginning research questions about this, is the best way forward. To continue with the same example as above, deciding to focus on one aspect of the missionary presence in southern Africa would be a logical next step. If this was a particular interest in, say, the development of missionary activity in the Eastern Cape and its relationship to the many Frontier Wars that occurred there, it means that research would focus on the Wesleyans and Methodism, as these were the main missionaries present in that area, which in turn would mean that one archival location and a particular collection in it would become a focus – London, SOAS, and the Methodist Missionary Society collection (nb. in practice a piece of research is not always going to be restricted to just one collection, and so the focus may not be exclusively on this). However, if instead the interest was in, say, the General Missionary Council gatherings, the meetings of representatives from the world community of missions, and particularly their foundation point in Edinburgh in 1910, this would direct the researcher’s attention to a different archive and a particular collection in it: the USA, Columbia University, and the World Missionary Conference records.

8.  To refer back to the other examples briefly mentioned earlier, focusing on the collections and archival references in research publications on the suffragette movement, Gandhi’s political activities, and the early days of diamond mining, would produce similar kinds of results. Doing so would show in what archives the main collections of potential interest are located, although care needs to be taken here, for the chance matter of what is read and what it references might mean that things that are important but which the reading that has been done that doesn’t reference can be missed, and so a review of the literature needs to be thorough and also backed up by using Web resources ‘visiting’ collections and archives. Once this is done, then more detailed work can begin, of whittling down the possibilities by finding out (if possible) what is in these and also reading more in the research literature, so that the topic and research questions and the possible collections of interest are developed and refined together in a hand-in-hand way.

9.  As noted earlier, perhaps most historical research topics will involve more than working on just one collection in one place. Researching one of the examples mentioned above, the UK suffragette movement, for example, would involve numerous collections in national archives of a range of kinds, and also in many local archives as well. Best then to refine the research focus to something fairly specific, not least because the published literature is enormous.

10.  What if the research focus is an archive as an edifice, like for instance the National Archives of Zimbabwe or Canada in relation to Imperialism? or if it is deliberately restricted to one collection for particular analytical reasons? No problem, so long as the same kind of approach is adopted, in being clear about what the research questions are, and relating these to the published academic literature on the topic of focus.

11.  By no means all archives have extensive catalogues of their holdings overall, or inventories (a detailed listing) of even the most extensive or more important of their collections. Because of this, references to collections that appear in the research literatures are particularly important in helping to gauge their relevance or not. Inexperienced archival researchers may think that everything will be on an archive’s website, but they often don’t have one, or if they do the information there is very sparse. Beginning archival researchers may also think that it’s possible just to ring up or email and an archivist will tell them exactly what there is that fits their particular research project. But best avoid doing this, firstly because in general archivists do not know the contents of collections but equally important matters to do with curation, and secondly because finding these things out is your job and not theirs, and they should not be treated as unpaid assistant researchers! So do your homework first, pin down the archive and the collection or collections you want to look at, then make an arrangement to visit for an appropriate period of time, and go prepared to look much wider than the specifics you have initially identified.

12.  Two cautions to finish this ‘How to…’ with. The first caution is to beware of the depictions of archival research in films and novels, and to reject seeing it in terms of the search for a particular document which will ‘reveal all’ because of its eureka content. It just doesn’t happen like that, forget the Da Vinci Code! If anyone tells you that it is, this is likely to be a very tall story. The advice here is, never to go to an archive and look at a collection with just a particular document in mind. Something specific like this may be in mind because another piece of research has written about it, but the purpose of original research is to go further that other people have. And going further like this requires new knowledge and stepping outside the boundaries set by what other people have done. So as suggested above, it is best to plan out the project, and map the place within this of a collection or set of documents that will be worked on. All individual documents will appear in an archive in the context of whole collection or a sub-set of one collection, And it is this that should be the focus, not one-off documents. This is what will increase the knowledge-base.

13.  The second caution is related. Whenever visiting an archive, and whenever looking at something in a collection, always use this as an opportunity to go beyond what you already know about. This can be done from the very beginning of a research project. At the beginning, literature searches should be regularly carried out on any and everything of direct – and much of indirect – relationship to the project in hand. The advice here is that when reviewing the research literature, always identify what are the gaps in and issues with this. This is an important part of refining the topic and the research questions – and also it means that it pinpoints areas where innovative work can be done, for no body of research literature is so complete or so perfect but there are still opportunities to do something new within its framework.

14.  Finally, it is important to remember that both ‘an archive’ and ‘a collection’ can be many and varied. They can and do include the contents of shoeboxes in a wardrobe as well as tidy and curated collections of things considered priceless.

Last updated: 20 May 2021